Why the extraordinary success of the Covid vaccine in Cuba could offer the best hope for the south of the world

Workers carry a shipment of Cuban Soberana Plus vaccine against the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, which will be donated by the Cuban government to Syria, to the José Marti International Airport in Havana on January 7, 2022.

YAMIL LAGE | AFP | Getty Images

Cuba has vaccinated a greater percentage of its population against Covid-19 than almost any of the largest and wealthiest countries in the world. In fact, only the oil-rich United Arab Emirates have a stronger immunization record.

The small, communist-ruled Caribbean island has taken that step by producing its own Covid vaccine, even as it struggles to keep supermarket shelves stocked amid a decades-old US trade embargo.

“It’s an incredible achievement,” Helen Yaffe, a Cuban expert and lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, told CNBC by phone.

“Those of us who have studied biotechnology are not surprised in this sense, for it did not come out of nowhere. It is the product of a conscious government policy of state investment in sector, both in public health and in the medical field. science. “

To date, around 86% of the Cuban population has been fully vaccinated against Covid with three doses, and an additional 7% have been partially vaccinated against the disease, according to official statistics compiled by Our World in Data.

These figures include children from the age of two, who started receiving the vaccine several months ago. The country’s health authorities are rolling out booster injections to the entire population this month in a bid to limit the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant Covid.

The country of about 11 million people remains the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean to have produced a local snapshot for Covid.

“The sheer daring of this tiny country to produce its own vaccines and immunize 90% of its population is an extraordinary thing,” John Kirk, professor emeritus in the Latin America program at Dalhousie University in New York, told CNBC. -Scotland, Canada. Phone.

I think it’s clear that many countries and people in the south of the planet see the Cuban vaccine as their best hope of getting vaccinated by 2025.

Helene Yaffé

Senior Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow,

Cuba’s prestigious biotechnology industry has developed five different Covid vaccines, including Abdala, Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus – which Cuba says provide up to 90% protection against symptomatic Covid when three doses are administered.

Cuban vaccine clinical trial data has yet to undergo an international scientific peer review, although the country has engaged in two virtual information exchanges with the World Health Organization. health. to initiate the emergency registration process for their vaccines.

Unlike US pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna, which use mRNA technology, all Cuban vaccines are protein-subunit vaccines, like the Novavax vaccine. Especially for low-income countries, they are cheap to produce, can be produced on a large scale, and do not require deep freezing.

This has prompted international health officials to present vaccines as a potential source of hope for the south of the world, especially as low vaccination rates persist. For example, while around 70% of the population of the European Union has been fully immunized, less than 10% of the African population has been fully immunized.

However, for this to happen, the WHO would likely have to approve Cuban vaccines. The WHO verification process involves assessing the production facilities where vaccines are developed, a point that Cuban health officials say has slowed progress.

Vicente Verez, director of the Cuban Vaccine Institute Finlay, told Reuters last month that the United Nations health agency is assessing Cuba’s manufacturing facilities to a “first world standard,” citing the costly process of upgrade theirs to this level.

Verez has previously said that the necessary documents and data will be submitted to the WHO in the first quarter of 2022. The WHO approval would be an important step in making the snaps available worldwide.

“Huge importance”

When asked what it would mean for low-income countries if the WHO approved Cuba’s Covid vaccines, Yaffe said: “I think it’s clear that many countries and people in the south of the world are seeing the Cuban vaccine as their best hope of getting vaccinated by 2025. “

“And it actually affects us all because what we see with the omicron variant is that what happens when large populations have almost no coverage is mutations and new variants. develop, then they come back to haunt the advanced capitalist countries which have accumulated vaccines, ”she added.

A man wears a face mask as he walks down a street amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Havana, Cuba, October 2, 2021.

Joaquin Hernandez | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Kirk agreed that the potential WHO approval of Covid vaccines produced nationally in Cuba would be of “enormous significance” to the south of the world.

“One thing that’s important to keep in mind is that vaccines don’t require the ultra-low temperatures that Pfizer and Moderna need, so there are places, in Africa in particular, where you don’t. not the ability to store these northern vaccines, ”Kirk said.

He also stressed that Cuba, unlike other countries or pharmaceutical companies, had offered to engage in technology transfer to share its expertise in vaccine production with countries in the South.

“Cuba’s goal is not to make a quick buck unlike multinational pharmaceutical companies, but rather to keep the planet healthy. So, yes, to make an honest profit but not an exorbitant profit like it would some multinationals, ”Kirk said. .

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned last month that a “tsunami” of Covid cases caused by the omicron variant was “so huge and so rapid” that it had overwhelmed health systems around the world whole.

Tedros reiterated his call for greater vaccine distribution to help low-income countries immunize their populations, with more than 100 countries on track to miss the UN health agency’s target for 70% of the world to be fully vaccinated by July.

The WHO said last year that the world would likely have enough doses of the Covid vaccine by 2022 to fully inoculate the entire global adult population – provided high-income countries do not accumulate vaccines to use in recall programs.

Along with trade associations in the pharmaceutical industry, a number of Western countries – such as Canada, the UK and Japan – are among those actively blocking a patent waiver proposal designed to boost global production of Covid vaccines.

The urgency to relinquish some intellectual property rights in the midst of the pandemic has been repeatedly stressed by the WHO, health experts, civil society groups, labor unions, former world leaders, international medical charities, Nobel laureates and human rights organizations.

An absence of vaccine hesitation

The seven-day average of daily Covid cases in Cuba rose to 2,063 as of January 11, reflecting an almost 10-fold increase since late December as the omicron variant spreads.

It comes as the number of Covid omicron cases rises in countries and territories in the Americas region. The Pan American Health Organization, WHO’s regional office for the Americas, has warned that an increase in cases could lead to increased hospitalizations and deaths in the coming weeks.

PAHO called on countries to speed up vaccine coverage to reduce transmission of Covid and reiterated its recommendation for public health measures such as tight-fitting masks – a mandatory requirement in Cuba.

Yaffe has long been confident in Cuba’s ability to boast one of the strongest vaccination records in the world. Speaking to CNBC in February last year – before the country even developed a local vaccine – she said she could ‘guarantee’ that Cuba would be able to administer its COVID vaccine produced in the country extremely quickly.

“It wasn’t a guess,” Yaffe said. “It was based on understanding their public health care system and its structure. So the fact that they have what they call family doctor and nurse clinics in every neighborhood.”

Students, accompanied by their mothers, are vaccinated with a dose of the Soberana 2 vaccine against the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, developed in Cuba, at the Bolivar educational center in Caracas, Venezuela, on December 13, 2021.

Pedro Rances Mattey | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Many of these clinics are based in rural and hard-to-reach areas, meaning that health authorities can quickly provide vaccines to the island’s population.

“The other aspect is that they don’t have any hesitation about vaccines, which we are seeing in many countries,” Yaffe said.

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